ELIZABETHTOWN, NC — Inmates rushed to aid the North Carolina officer overseeing them pick up trash when he collapsed on a road. Despite their efforts to call 911 and look after him, officer James Smith died at the hospital.
Chief Deputy Larry Guyton of the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office said "it means a lot to law enforcement" that the inmates stayed at Smith's side and rushed to get him help.
Smith, a roadside supervisor with the Bladen County Sheriff's Office, suffered a stroke while working with three inmates along a road in Elizabethtown on Wednesday, the sheriff's office said.
The inmates "noticed that he started weaving and stumbling" and helped him to the ground, Guyton told ABC News on Monday.
The inmates used Smith's phone to dial 911 and flagged down a driver and asked him to call for help, too, Guyton said.
The three inmates "stood by and stayed with him until EMS and law enforcement arrived," Guyton said.
Smith, 62, died in the hospital Sunday morning, he said.
Smith worked with the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office in 2002 and 2003 before heading to the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office where he spent 15 years, Guyton said. Smith returned to the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office in 2018 to work part-time, he said.
Smith was not only "well thought of by everyone here," but also "liked by the inmates," Guyton said.
"They respected him, he treated them well. And it was obvious that their respect for him and concern for him was one of the main reasons they stayed and watched over him until help could arrive," Guyton said, praising Smith and the inmates.
"In this day and time, we're not the most popular people in the world," Guyton said of law enforcement, "And it's nice to know that there are people that still care. It doesn't matter that they were inmates or not, they were men and human beings, and they reached out to help someone in need."
The inmates are part of the sheriff's office's roadside trash pickup program through North Carolina's misdemeanor confinement program, Guyton said.
"The state contracts with local jails to house misdemeanor inmates, and we pull from them, give them an opportunity to work outside the facility. The trade-off is for every 30 days they work, they get four days off their sentence," he explained.
"Just because they end up in jail for a crime, it doesn't mean they're bad people," he added. "We all make mistakes and these men are readily paying for their mistakes, and they're trying to improve themselves."
Smith will be laid to rest on Friday, said Guyton.